Short Takes

The Clowning Barnacle

Claire-Louise Bennett is an Englishwoman who wrote a strange and bewitching book titled Pond (2015), while she lived on the west coast of Ireland. But there are many times during these stories—a lame word, and inaccurate; they are more like reveries, or quests, or hallucinations than like any form of traditional narrative—when she seems to be from some much more alien homeland.

Because I am a literary critic, I get interested in where such an odd work fits in to things. And in the few things I have read about Pond and about Bennett I notice others are also trying to find influences and fellow travelers. Jia Tolentino, in a review from The New Yorker, for example, mentions Beckett and Lydia Davis and Knut Hamsun and Dickinson and Thoreau and Katherine Tynan. Because Bennett lived alone, and because there is a pond involved, the comparison to Thoreau seems appealing; though Tolentino sees contrast rather than continuity between the solitary American and the visionary in Ireland.

Thoreau has to dig to get at his payload of cosmic belonging; you can feel the labor in it, and in fact one thing you love about Thoreau is both how hard he works at it, and how hard he works to make it seem no big deal. But Bennett’s character has the cosmic come over her as it were:

“all of the[] tangible and increscent coordinates in an immemorial routine of force and transmutation, of which the twilight taking of me was perhaps the final and most assuaging element. Surely we are all occasionally called upon to become a function of this overarching and irresolvable hunger. Who knows what really came over me—I was ill, after all—my defences were down, I wasn’t quite myself; or, perhaps, I was more myself than ever. Perhaps I was stripped right down to my most vehement hidden currents: transparent and seen through, right there at the gate. On the way to the mast I met with my true body, dissolute and available—I saw it all, every aspect of its necromantic inclination—no, it was not fear that shook me, but rapture.”

Thoreau approaches this ecstasy sometimes, though rarely, on Mount Ktaadn most famously; but for the most part you get the sense that when he felt such necromancy and rapture coming on, he was just as inclined to attend to his beans.

In an interview at The Paris Review, Bennett mentions that Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space struck her powerfully, and from that clue you can find your way to Henri Bosco—a crucial resource for Bachelard—and even more Bosco’s novel Malicroix, about a man who winters alone in the only house on an island in the middle of the Rhone in the Camargue. The protagonist goes a little mad more than once in this harrowing mystical book, and Bennett’s narrator is also, well, she’s peculiar… not mad, as Tolentino correctly says; but certainly odd.

But that idiosyncrasy is the source of much that is marvelous in the book, pages that are funny and scary and elusive, that buzz with a kind of sliding associative energy that circuits between the mundane to bizarre. Here Beckett is obviously a major influence, as Bennett herself says: “I’ve always been drawn to the misfit, the outcast, the exile, the hopeless case with the wicked sense of humor—I’m thinking of narrators in work by Samuel Beckett, Jean Rhys, Marlen Haushofer, Thomas Bernhard, Clarice Lispector, Renata Adler, Paul Bowles, Anais Nin, Fernando Pessoa.” In this passage, beautifully described by Tolentino as “nonsense with the heft of animal certainty and magic,” there is something quite close to a literary channeling going on, channeling of Beckett who was himself so often channeling Joyce, with Stein breaking through the frequency here and there:

“Out beyond and way back and further past that still. And such was it since. But after all appearances and some afternoons misspent it came to pass not all was done and over with. No, no. None shally shally on that here hill. Ah, but that was idle then and change was not an old hand. No, no. None shilly shilly on that here first rung. So, much girded and with new multitudes, the sun came purple and the hail turned in a year or two. And that was not all. No, no. None ganny ganny on that here moon loose. Turns were taken and time put in, so much heft and grimace, there, with callouses, all along the diagonal. Like no other time and the time taken back, that too like none other that can be compared to a bovine heap raising steam, or the eye-cast of a flailing comet. Back and forth, examining the egg spill and the cord fray and the clowning barnacle.”

I don’t quite know what this is—it’s not satire, and it’s not pastiche, even though it seems wry and knowing about its relation to precursor nuttiness. But if wading across such slippery intertextual tides gets us face to face with a “clowning barnacle”—a prodigy to be found nowhere else in all world literature—it is worth getting a little wet.

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